Picture this: it’s 1965. The Daleks’ Masterplan Episode Four. Katarina has just fired herself out of an airlock to save the Doctor and Steven from the convicts of the conveniently named prison planet Desperus, to Steven’s considerable anguish. Unbeknownst to them, Katarina is scooped up by a passing galactic pleasure cruiser, where she gets a job doing manicures and facials on the Earth-Kembel run. Skip forward to 1982 and the closing moments of Earthshock. The freighter crashes into prehistoric Earth, disgorging Adric who, unlike the brilliant ‘Part Five’ on the DVD, isn’t eaten by a dinosaur, but instead survives to inspire Neolithic man to first pick up sharpened animal bones and use them as weapons.
Yes, Adric could return at any minute: a sobering thought.
Death in Doctor Who isn’t what it was, folks. Rather, death isn’t what it is. Those two moments from the show’s history are memorable for their impact because they were so unexpected. I remember asking my Dad whether Adric was dead or not. He told me that Adric was probably OK, ostensibly to avoid upsetting a five-year-old after a long day at work. His reappearance a story later, as an illusion, may have helped placate me. But dead he actually was, and that’s partly why the Cybermen are my favourite Who monsters.
Ingrid Oliver is set to return as UNIT scientist Osgood in Series 9, despite Missy having made good on her threat to kill her. The decision to kill off a popular character was a sadistic act that established Missy’s villain credentials, much in the way that the two acts of self-sacrifice helped establish poignant final acts of courage by the two companions mentioned. It’s what makes them memorable, especially Adrienne Hill as Katarina, for her four-episode stint as a companion fifty years ago. Some of the series’ finest stories have had an almost attritional body count, and the impact would undeniably be diminished if everybody involved got up afterwards, dusted themselves down and carried on with what they were doing.
In 1988, DC Comics took the controversial decision to poll Batman fans on whether they should kill off Jason Todd, the second Robin. Never a popular character, the answer came back a resounding ‘yes’ and in issue 428, Todd was beaten to a pulp by the Joker, tied to a pillar and blown up. Flash forward to 2002 and the Hush mini-series, and Batman’s tormentor is revealed to be none other than… Jason Todd, who has survived his seemingly terminal double whammy and is out to air his grievances. Things get patched up and Todd rejoins the Batman ‘family’ as Red Robin, a name which, in itself, would make you wish you’d stayed dead. In 2013, Grant Morrison killed off the latest Robin, Damian Wayne – but for how long?
I’m guessing that wasn’t the reaction DC were going for, but repeated exposure to the miraculous resurrection has robbed the ‘shock death’ of its power to, well, shock. It’s the same with Who: wonderful as many of the stories were, the number of times Rory ‘died’ in Series 5 got a bit wearing. He was becoming the series’ answer to Captain Scarlet (or Kenny from South Park). It’s a testament to the chemistry between Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan that they managed to eke sympathy from their audience on each occasion, but it was starting to pall by the time the Doctor rebooted the universe.
Death and renewal are, however, part and parcel of the show. In context, it’s what enables the series to keep going. Every Doctor ‘dies’ and is reborn. Likewise, the Master and Davros both manage to come back from seemingly insuperable odds (burning alive, exterminated by their own creations, being Eric Roberts) day in, day out. But they aren’t human characters. We accept it because experience has taught us that that’s what happens to Time Lords and/or mutant Kaled scientists. Our experience of people dying is different. We know they don’t come back and so, when the production team takes the decision to write a character out in so dramatic a fashion, you hope they’ll stick to their guns (or whatever they’re using) to give that character an impactful send-off that people will remember. Bringing them back dilutes that character’s credibility, no matter how popular (or not) he/she is or was.
Bringing popular characters back from the dead is nothing new: Sherlock Holmes and Dallas are proof of that. Sometimes, though, it’s more of a tribute to a character’s contribution to a series, either TV or comic, to let them rest in peace.